I collected Barbies and built walls around myself, boxes like the Dreamhouse that took up so much space in my room, plastic walls with sharp corners, fixed surroundings, flowers cut to look like the ones growing by my next-door neighbor’s mailbox but so much less fragile.
So much less fragile.
The architecture of plastic promised that: a permanence and a relief from the softness, the easy-to-hurtness of being a girl and then a woman, I thought. Plastic offered protection (lessons learned later about latex gloves, condoms, barriers designed to stop fluidity—a lovely thought when it comes to blood, to semen). Plastic prevented me from feeling… anything.
This is what I learned when I read Donna Haraway’s A Manifesto for Cyborgs: there is power in abnegating femaleness, in living between body and machine. At the same time, we experience technological waste—that’s something that ecofeminists addressed before Haraway in their paralleling of the female body with the natural world, and that even in a post-human dystopia, structure is ineluctable.
I read Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joanand Kaethe Schwehn’s The Rending and the Nestaround the same time one of my friends introduced me to plarn. This coincidental juxtaposition, happening as it did during Plastic-Free July and my second viewing of A Plastic Ocean, has made me think about what I have done to my body, what I have done to the earth, and what I make, how it makes and unmakes me, strips of plastic bags pulled tight by plastic needles and sloping loosely from a ball I’ve made over my fingers.
I hate it.
I am making bags out of bags, a metaphor and a reality that is as tangled as the piles of trash I’m pulling together, weaving together to keep myself from falling apart at the seams, to keep my tiny fragment of the world from being filled up with so much waste.
Working with plastic has taught me how frail the substance feels when it has outlived its first use, and I feel sorry for it, sorry for this flimsy substance that falls apart in my hands. I try to make it sturdy, even as I curse it for making me feel dirty (perhaps I should have rinsed off the CAUTION DANGER tape I tore off a cone by a construction site before I began to touch it, finger to needle), culpable for all the things I have thrown away.
The things I have thrown away. The times I have thrown myself away—on men, on meaning, and on meaninglessness. I have been an object, the object, which makes it hard to object. I have been treated as disposable. I have treated myself as disposable, I think, as I imagine the number of wastebaskets by body has filled with tampon applicators, bottled water, Ziploc bags, lip-gloss tubes, mascara wands, plastic hangers from clothes I ended up not wanting.
It is so easy to consume and be consumed in ways that surreptitiously make us feel unworthy, as if we’re made of the stuff that fills so many trash cans and recycling bins. We live in a culture where we want women to look like plastic, to feel like plastic—and to be as easy to dispose of as plastic. Maybe that’s why, as much as I hate it, I’m drawn to the fact that it outlives us, chokes out everything we have stereotypically labeled feminine: water, birth. This so-called disposable product is destined to outlive us.
My disposable body, the body I keep trying to throw away (babies and bathwater seems like the appropriate phrase here) keeps returning. I choke on it like a sea otter or baby seagull stuffed full of trash bags. I choke on it and still float. I am learning that what we view as disposable is in fact not something we should toss without thinking into a receptacle, not something we should put off to the side and pretend never existed. It’s the stuff that matters.
Each ball of plarn, each broken Barbie, and every vinyl record I’d rather melt down than hear out has a story. For example:
The edges of my femaleness have hardened. The landfill of my living room is a series of landmines that I stitch together to create something capable of withstanding the right pressures to tell a different version of sustainability that defies fictions and fibers. I hope.
Plastic is a gift, and I have made the most of Barbies, vinyl albums, and plastic bags by remaking them, lending them a permanence and a new intelligibility.
Plastic is a prison. It ties me to social constructions and reminds me with every stitch how many molecules are fighting for meaning, for space—and how much ends up floating away, causing destruction, rendering itself obsolete and yet unavoidable.
When plastic moves down my arms and I grip it, I am part woman, part object, always.
The domestic depends on it. Grocery bags, Ziploc bags, microwavable containers. It’s no wonder that when people try to go Zero Waste, they have to start in the kitchen and work their way out. How often do we work our way out?
What I make unmakes a small story of destruction. What I use helps, I tell myself, create a tiny bit more space for life in the ocean, for life in our most vulnerable communities, the ones right on the edge of landfills.
On my arms, the plastic feels toxic, not like the living fibers I love to knit.
With it, I am never sure if I am reproducing artifice or unmaking it (e.g., when I told a man that I was making a bag from bags, he perhaps predictably laughed, even though it wasn’t intended to be funny).
We give birth to stories that are objects, too—stories and objects we do not always want to touch and to touch us.
Knitting with plastic has its own kinesthetics. My mother could hear me knitting when I talked to her on the phone. There is, in that, a sensory power and a shifting away from the quietude of crafts toward something more radical.
The hashtag trends. A status, copied and pasted, is shared: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem. Soon, the status is altered – “women” becomes “people” to be more inclusive. Depending on your platform, depending on your connections, sometimes the message is simple. Sometimes people customize with a personal story, an identifying detail. Some are explicit. Some call out names. A spreadsheet circulates, disappears, and reappears. A blot of mold blooms. The stomach roils.
Amidst the outpouring of #MeToo, some women begin to talk about why they don’t hashtag, why they don’t share. Even though they are in the #MeToo (who isn’t, they wonder?) – what does or doesn’t count as serious enough to stand up and claim your space? One woman writes in to an advice column that #MeToo is triggering, an additional reminder of her rape everywhere she goes. Some people are private about certain parts of their lives, and even a cause like #MeToo isn’t likely to fundamentally change the way they use social media, especially with a part of their lives they’ve held soft and dear, cocooned close, and told very few.
In fairy tales, the wolf is never really a wolf, and no matter what he says, “hungry” isn’t quite what he means. If a man kisses you when you’re sleeping or dead, he thinks you’re beautiful and you’re meant to be together. If you want love, give up your voice for legs: you can either call out, or run – but not both. Who needs either anyway . . . it looks like a handsome prince is headed your way. Perhaps fairy tales are an archaic and covert version of #MeToo.
In my novella, Girling, girls grow up in the contemporary world, but the narrative is undergirded with a reflexive use of fairy tales. They navigate their own desires, but those wishes and dreams have been planted, dusted into the characters’ psyches by the world-as-it-is. The two main characters, Kate and Ann, best friends and almost-sisters, meet wolves and princes and try to discern which is which; they are disobedient girls, and princesses, and evil stepsisters all at once. Kate and Ann realize that fairy tales re-tell these same stories over and over; the hardest part is becoming a queen, which is why there are so few fairy tales that tell a story after marriage –they’ll learn this too.
In one chapter of the novella, Kate and Ann are spending an adolescent summer in Acapulco. They are both fourteen, the time of transformation. Sirens appear. Multiple versions of The Little Mermaid appear. Older Kate intrudes with a line from Eliot. Older Ann’s husband appears to rush around trying to show Kate a manatee. In that summer of fourteen, Kate is exploring her transformation to womanhood, wishing childhood would be quickly done. She’s snuck a bikini into her luggage (something her father wouldn’t allow her to wear at home) – and when they visit the resort hotels, she escapes to the bar and pretends she belongs there. Ann holds on a little more tightly to the child she still is, not quite ready to shed that potentially protective skin. Ann is also protected by her unwillingness to be seen, a glamour of awkwardness. Kate thinks she finds a Prince, but ends up on a pebbled beach, with an insistent frog who never turns into the stuff of young girls’ dreams. Later, Kate will try to tell her mother about this: about desire and shame and what’s she’s learned about their twining.
Kate would be hashtag conflicted. She would worry that her experiences aren’t serious enough for a #MeToo. Sure, there was that thing when she was little, but they were both kids really, so does that count? Sure, there was that thing when she was fourteen and he didn’t listen when she said No, but they were pretty close and maybe he didn’t hear her, or couldn’t stop? There was another time that would absolutely count, but nothing happened in the end, because . . . well, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened. Anyway, she’s fine. She’s lucky really. She worries more about Ann’s daughter, Luna; she worries about her.
I’ll be teaching contemporary women’s literature this spring, and I’m preparing my book order: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard out of Carolina, and Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once upon a River.
I was talking with a colleague the other day, and he asked if I ever give a trigger warning for this class. These three novels all have at their center the rape of a child; the last time I taught this class, on the first day, I pointed that out to all the students. I told them why I chose these novels, why we needed to talk about these issues, and that I completely understood if they wanted to drop the class. That was a few years ago, the season of #YesAllWomen.
My colleague said, “But it’s a women’s literature class – do you really have to tell them you’ll be addressing the lives of women?”
It was Campbell’s Once upon a River that inspired me to write fiction in the first place, to try my hand at storytelling, moving from the forms of poetry, from the lyric and episodic, to the narrative.
In River, I met Margo Crane, a young female protagonist who survives, who stakes out on her own, learning to make her own way in the dangerous world, negotiating beast-men who could be alternatingly kind and cruel. If a woman’s love can turn a beast into a man, the tales suggest the opposite is also true. In that women’s literature class, I asked students to trace the underpinnings of fairy tales that moved through Margo’s story.
When my best friend, Carmen, to whom Girling is dedicated, had her daughter, I was driving in the car with her and her husband. They were talking about something – clothes, or toys, decorations, readying for her birthday party, and I was reading Cristina Bacchilega’s Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. “‘Girling’is a continual process,” I said, looking out the window, their baby asleep in the car seat. Her husband looked at me blinking; Carmen laughed a little – I was always saying things like that, apropos of nothing it seemed. Later, I tried to explain. Girling is my fuller attempt to explain.
At the end of that women’s literature class, I asked students to reflect on the three novels we’d read together. The class was mostly women, only a few men. The women allowed as to how they’d been glad to read all three novels, Allison especially, although that had been a difficult read. A necessarily difficult read. It was beautiful and brutal. The men were mostly quiet in this discussion. During that season of #YesAllWomen, a hashtag had answered back: #NotAllMen.
In this season, some have begun to use #HowIWillChange to respond to #MeToo. Many men have pledged to call out harassment, to challenge sexist jokes, to demand better of their friends, to listen when women tell their stories. The hope is that #MeToo isn’t just a conversation among women, because we’ve been having that conversation for a very long time. Perhaps someone –some friend, brother, father, beloved (whether he imagines himself a prince, dwarf, or beast) saw a woman he cared about post #MeToo and thought: I had no idea. Really? Her? Her Too?
As for Girling, I hope some friends, brothers, fathers, beloved princes, and beasts will read the book. They may find themselves there.
“For the Thousandth Time, I want to Know” is a poem by Mark Nepo from his out-of-print book Inhabiting Wonder.
I first imagined this piece nearly four years ago, and contacted Mark, who generously gave me permission to reprint the poem. It was an ambitious project at the time, and I got about three-quarters of the way through before I abandoned ship. Over the course of a year I designed it, printed it, built all the frames, and scored each sheet by hand eight times and each hinge three times. Then I assembled the first full prototype, and my morale plummeted. It just wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. A classic example of what Ira Glass is talking about in this genius little video on beginners, and making things. I let my perfectionist get the better of me and put the whole darn project up high on a shelf, leaving it there to lurk in the corner through three studio moves and countless other projects.
For three years now, I’ve alternated between forgetting about this project and feeling bad about it: guilty, dismissive, or just plain impossible. It’s been entered on to several hundred to-do lists without ever being crossed off. Until about a month ago. Something shifted and “Thousandth Time” moved from the “unfinished old crap” list in my mind to the “new work to be editioned” list. There were a few external motivating factors, but in reality I don’t know what made the the project click over from one side of my mental divide to the other. The good news is it did, which made it feel possible to work on, and voila! Now its many pieces are covering my work table and the edition is more than half completed!
It also feels current, which is perhaps the most interesting thing of the whole matter. Because the fact is that when I began the project it was beyond my ability to execute from a technical standpoint. I could see it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, but I simply did not have the experience and hand skills to improve it. Now, coming back to the binding process a good three years later, with a handful of large book editions under my belt plus a lot of one-off blank books, my hands are much more capable! And my eyes can see a lot more. It’s been an unexpected gift to pick up the pieces of this ‘old’ project and experience just how far I’ve come since I started it. Somehow my old self must’ve known it would be important work for my future self to complete.
“Thousandth Time” is a three-dimensional poetry broadside, printed on Japanese paper and bound on balsa wood frames with two-way hinge so it can open and close in both directions. I’m making it in an edition of 26. The design was inspired by traditional shoji screens, and a few smaller pieces built by Jules Faye for window displays. This broadside folds closed like a book and slips into a protective black soft-sided slipcase – which is a whole ‘nother pile of work. But hey that’s okay! I like work. Doesn’t everyone like work? One more prototype and the slipcases should be ready to edition. The binding process for these screens is challenging and time-consuming. The materials are delicate and finicky and I designed it without considering the grain of the paper. The truth is I derived the overall dimensions from the paper itself, which I found in a dusty old box labeled “Antique Japanese Paper from Ralph” which must’ve been sitting for a couple decades itself. As it happens the grain is running short-wise which means the longer turn-ins are the more difficult ones. Here’s the process in a nutshell: first, I trim the corners of each sheet so that they’ll fold properly. Then I glue the frame to the sheet and place it under boards to dry flat. Now the turn-ins, the most difficult part. Head and tail are turned in first and the corners are wrapped with the tabs (cut in the first step). Then the sides are turned in, with generous amounts of PVA, some swearing, and a few deep breaths. Back under boards to dry flat. Then the hinges are attached to two frames at the same time so they line up, first to the front, then folded and scored against the frame. The last step is joining the two screens together by gluing the hinges on the back. Then back under boards, and they are left to dry closed under weight. This helps the finished pieces stay flat and also lets the hinges relax into their closed position. On a personal note, my mother asked me to print this poem the year after my older brother died. So the project has a lot of grief tied up in it as well, which I am sure has played its own mysterious part in the stymied stop-and-go nature of working on it. I can’t help but note the time of year: there’s something about fall and the days getting darker, a general trend toward introspection that feels appropriate for coming back around to finishing this edition. I spent Nov. 1, the Day of the Dead, prototyping the slipcases, which are all black. Who knows why we let certain things go, and when if ever we’re able to pick them back up? Some things can’t be rushed, and sometimes we’re not meant to know. Good craft has a way of being slow, as does healing when there’s a rift in your soul. I’ve thought of my brother Nathan a lot while working on this project, and I will continue to through the many slow hours left to finish it. “Thousandth Time” is dedicated not just to him, but to all of those we love, and see no more.
As a letterpress printer, I work primarily with handset metal type and antique presses. My studio practice is research based and employs strict experimentation alongside no-holds- barred exploration. I collect poetry fragments, expand on them visually, and thread them together to create an experience at once intimate and vast, exposing a sense of wonder and available space. According to Franz Kafka: “a book must be the axe that breaks the frozen sea within us.” I aim for my prints to be pages out of that book. Whether an ice-shattering blow or a tiny doorstop, my work holds space at the threshold of imagination and invites the viewer to enter.
About the Press
Expedition Press produces literary-inspired artwork and limited edition poetry books and broadsides. Our mission is to increase access to poetry via multiple beautifully crafted points of entry.
Expedition is also home to a full service letterpress print shop and bindery. Our shop offers a broad range of design and print work rooted in handset type. We’re located in downtown Kingston, WA, just a few blocks from the ferry. The Press is open by appointment.
In October of 2004, my mom picked me up from my college dorm and drove me about twenty miles up Interstate 79 to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, where we pulled into one of those perfect, Desperate Housewives-type neighborhoods with the immaculate lawns and minimalist traditional houses just a few inches too close together.
We parked in the street in front of one of these houses; the driveway was too packed with minivans and station wagons for us to fit. Also, I got the impression that my mom didn’t want to be trapped. If she felt the need to flee, street parking would enable us to up and go without any awkward car shuffling.
My mom had brought along four grocery store bags filled with photographs and memorabilia from our recent vacation to England, and we hauled them up the walk to the front door, which was opened pre-knock by a smiling woman in a red tracksuit and white athletic socks. Her grip on the doorframe made it look as if she’d slid to a stop Risky Business-style.
“Ginny! Hey girl!” this woman said to my mom, who was not a “Hey girl!” type of woman. She turned to me and smiled. “You must be Mike. I’m Mrs. Costa. Come on in!”
We followed her into her perfect home. The color scheme was light blue and cream, and the walls were adorned with photographs of a perfect family unit. She advised us to remove our shoes and led us to a door on the far side of her open-plan kitchen. We descended a set of stairs and emerged into Scrapbooking Narnia.
My mom and I gazed up at the shelf-lined walls like Belle in the Beast’s library, dazzled by rows upon rows of glittering books, sticker packs, paper sets, and collections of colorfully gripped razor blades arrayed on surgical trays.
Rows of tables were arranged in the center of the basement, accessorized with clear plastic discard bins hanging from the edges. About a dozen middle-aged women were seated at the tables, gabbing and crafting like Santa’s elves while sipping wine coolers.
We introduced ourselves and joined them at the tables, where Mrs. Costa proceeded to take us through the basics of scrapbooking. She started with the essentials: tape runners, corner cutters, die-cuts, stickers, journal boxes, paper, paper, more paper, and of course, scrapbooks. Then she showed us how to add pages to scrapbooks and how to tape paper onto the pages. We learned that nearly any mistake could be corrected with the right combination of patience, tape, and the magical fix-it tool (which is basically a piece of plastic – rounded on one end and pointed on the other – that allows for the scraping up and pressing down of tape and stickers). She showed us the best way to edit photos, both for page aesthetics and for the photos themselves, enabling us to crop bad angles, cover unwanted rumples with stickers, and make our complexions dazzling with the right color of mat.
Thus instructed, we got to work. As we did, Mrs. Costa brought my mom a wine cooler and me a Diet Coke, and we casually chatted with the other scrapbookers. Mrs. Costa herself didn’t scrapbook; instead she bopped around, helping to cut photos, choose stickers, cover pages in protective plastic, or offer any other scrapbooking assist. The majority of the other ladies were working on books about genealogy or Disney World, and generously provided us with tips and examples.
Though the typical scrapbook looks like it’s constructed page by page, the reality is that a lot of work should be done before the first photo is placed. Photos should be organized into the order that they will appear in the book, then grouped by potential page, then cropped. Paper for backgrounds needs to be pre-chosen, particularly if you plan on matting your photos before actually putting them into the book. (You should.) Supporting materials – brochures, menus, stickers, journal boxes, etc. – need to be chosen ahead of time and also cropped and/or shaped.
This all felt very overwhelming the first time. My mom and I were slow, careful croppers. We obsessed over potential color schemes, eventually choosing pink and green to accentuate the colors we’d experienced in English gardens. We looked around at the other scrapbookers’ immaculate pages, so vivid that I could practically feel It’s a Small World’s artificial river lapping at our feet, and felt jealous and inadequate.
Despite the friendly atmosphere, I felt out of place and uncomfortable. On the one hand, I was a nineteen-year-old boy in a group of scrapbooking forty-plus women. An obviously gay teenager in the heart of Republican Americana. What could be more traditional than women gathered around the crafting table? And there I was, an interloper, the opposite of traditional, bringing the stain of maleness (the double stain of male-on-maleness) to this dainty female gathering.
On the other hand, scrapbooking represented everything that a formative gay male was supposed to reject. Online dating sites were filled with guys looking for masculine guys only. Gays were supposed to be breaking stereotypes, doing manly things, not picking out stickers with our moms.
But as we cut pictures and listened to stories about football games, unbelievable Disney deals, and local politics, a Zen-like relaxation overtook me. Every group of matted photos was an individual memory, curated by my mother and me for an audience of ourselves.
We went back the next week, and as we progressed from cropping and organizing to placing background paper and arranging our pages, my feelings of relaxation turned to subtle joy. Part of this was the simple pleasure of being in a group whose only connection was shared creative expression.
But more than that, the joy began to flow from the scrapbook itself. It started as a stirring in my stomach, a giddy excitement achieved by trimming what had mostly been a lousy day trip to Dover into a beautiful one-page ode to the city’s famous white cliffs. Eventually every piece of our trip fit into the book like a piece of our own intricate jigsaw.
That giddiness grew as we found the perfect places to stick the menus, brochures, business cards, and even coins that we’d squirreled away on our trip. Scrapbooking solved some sort of organizational compulsion that I didn’t even know I’d possessed, and the ability to make the useless useful was intoxicating.
When I look at that English scrapbook now, it’s hard to see beyond the book’s flaws. It is a twelve-inch-by-twelve-inch pale green canvas book with a simple metal plaque adorning the front cover. The plaque consists of reliefs of dainty pink and yellow flowers. Very English. It opens to a garish title page, dominated by laser-cut, doily-like stick-on letters spelling out “ENGLAND” across the top. Beneath, a cutout from a brochure showing a rail map of Great Britain is sandwiched between bright red words – “Mike” on the left and “Mom” on the right. All of this lay atop a Pepto-pink background and surrounded by stickers of airplanes, flowers, hedgehogs, and, strangely, a giant watermill.
Our stickers are placed unevenly, we failed to mat about half of the photos, and we stuck our journal boxes in the book before we did the actual journaling, which forced us to squeeze too much or stretch too little text within them.
Despite those flaws, I have nothing but appreciation for the book, and that’s because of what isn’t physically within it. The invisible feelings and details that aren’t on the pages but nevertheless still live inside the scrapbook. There is something about scrapbooking a moment that traps the events and details around that point in time. I don’t know whether or not those details are the truth or in fact just another facet of the scrapbooking illusion, but every page still takes me back into who I was then.
The first picture in this first scrapbook is of me, looking relaxed and comfortable in my own skin, wearing sunglasses and leaning against the doorframe of the hotel my mom and I stayed at for our first few days in England. The picture itself isn’t that significant outside of enabling us to remember the name of The Ridgemount Hotel. Instead, the picture is significant because the person in the photo didn’t exist.
At nineteen I was horribly self-conscious. I was tormented by a combination the fear that came with growing up gay in a rural area and the insecurity of an effeminate, formerly obese teenager. I wasn’t someone who could “pass” for straight, and I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin.
But this picture on the first page is the first I can recall of myself looking relaxed and at ease. I didn’t even realize that I’d felt so different until we began creating the scrapbook and I saw myself in those photographs and relived the memories.
Scrapbooking revealed to me that I’d felt like my real, true self in London. This made sense – it was a place where I could be myself in public without attracting unwanted attention. Later, I would move to London for this very reason.
Scrapbooking is like a Ouija board for nostalgia. Usually this ethereal force that alternately warms and stabs our hearts, nostalgia is harnessed by scrapbooking into a kind of total recall of events. To an outsider, a beautifully constructed scrapbook might look like a Photoshopped version of events — a postcard memory. But scrapbooking allows for the opposite, at least in my experience. The process of scrapbooking allows me to fully reflect on every angle of an experience.
This reflection is hard. Like most LGBTQIA+ people, I have a lot of pain in my past. Pain suffered at the hands of bullies, of society, and of myself. Pain that often made very little sense at the time of its infliction. This is where scrapbooking can help. It allows for reflection to be coupled with action. The act of sorting through memories, painful or not, is empowering. It may seem symbolic, but it’s more than that because an actual document — an artefact – is being created in the process.
For example, I have a scrapbook my time spent studying abroad in northeast Australia, one of the most beautiful places in the world. However, this part of Australia was also at the time quite socially conservative, and gay activity was restricted to the Internet and a few gay clubs. In building my scrapbook I thought back to hurled slurs, having my boyfriend (who was closeted) deny my existence, being called “Gay Mike” by everyone, including my closest friends.
Unlike my trip to England, I did not feel at home in Australia. Scrapbooking, though, allowed me to control how I remembered Australia. It may sound as if I’m putting a rose tint on the past. But pain can’t be erased with the cropping of a photograph or the addition of stickers. Pain, shame, fear, and embarrassment are all tattooed on my skin. But scrapbooking my Australian experience allowed me to declare what I wanted to take away from Australia. I fell in love. I was independent for the first time. The nature was beautiful and I met some of the best people I’ve ever known. I frolicked on some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and saw some of the world’s weirdest animals. My brother visited, and we had an absolute blast.
Those are the things in my Australian scrapbook, and I look back on that time with joy. I don’t forget any of the bad things, but my scrapbook has allowed me to keep those bad memories at bay, to prevent them from smothering the good ones.
Beyond what scrapbooking gave me mentally, it had tangible benefits as well. The actual skills associated with scrapbooking have aided me countless times in my career, most significantly in the field of advertising.
Work took me around the world, and I spent 2007 to 2011 living in London, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Hong Kong. In the fall of 2011, my husband and I made the decision to move to the United States, specifically to New York. I just had to find a job. New York City’s advertising field is notoriously competitive and overflowing with eager job hunters with endless reserves of creativity and technical skills.
I arranged a series of interviews and arrived in New York from Hong Kong with a briefcase full of résumés and a portfolio of great international clients. However, it felt like something was missing. When I got to my hotel in Manhattan, it dawned on me what I could do to set myself apart. I called my mother and had her run to Mrs. Costa’s and get me the shiniest scrapbook she could find. She overnighted it to me along with a heap of supplies. Luckily I’d given myself an extra day to recover from jetlag before my interviews, and as soon as my things arrived, I set up shop in the hotel’s business center, printing, cropping, and sticking my working life into a silver, star-adorned scrapbook.
I didn’t know whether I would be successful, but I was relatively sure that no other candidate for a senior role in a New York advertising job would have a scrapbooked résumé. One of the lessons that scrapbooking had given me over the years was that personal moments count far more in a scrapbook than the generic, no matter how stunning that generic moment was. As beautiful as the Eiffel Tower is, everyone has seen a picture of it. Scrapbooks are for showing yourself posing with a stranger in front of the Eiffel Tower, eating a dozen croissants, or looking awkward in a beret.
So I focused my scrapbook résumé on the personal. I had my education, agency experience, and client list, of course. But I also showed myself sitting fireside with my boss on retreat in South Africa’s Karoo desert and eating spicy soup on a business trip to Shanghai. I included pictures of myself running the London Marathon and posing with friend on Hong Kong’s Avenue of Stars.
I got the job and took that scrapbooking experience to the agency with me, advising colleagues on how to creatively present work to clients and how to pitch for new ones. And I kept scrapbooking for myself, which helped me not only to remember what I loved about my life but helped me reflect on what I didn’t.
Which is also how I ended up leaving advertising. In focusing my scrapbook résumé on the personal, I also identified what it was that I loved about my job. I loved the travel and the people, the new experiences. What I didn’t love was the work. In looking back at the scrapbook now, the signs are all there. I reflected on educational experiences warmly and thoroughly and skipped over entire years of actual work experience. Most tellingly, I included a page in my scrapbook about how I dreamed of being an author. Who applies to a job by telling potential employers they want to be something else?
Eventually, I left advertising and went back to school to be a writer. I now teach, too, which is another area where scrapbooking knowledge proves to be a helpful arrow in my quiver, though a young male teacher telling a group of millennials that he scrapbooks is also a recipe for instant criticism.
Which doesn’t bother me much. In learning to scrapbook, I learned to focus on what’s really important. Sometimes what’s really important is cropping your midsection or ex-boyfriend out of photos. Sometimes it’s adding a hundred stickers to a page to emphasize the importance of an event. Sometimes it’s holding on to the smallest memento of a person or place. And sometimes it’s choosing to let something go.
Memoir is getting naked in front of a room full of strangers and saying, “Here are my stretch marks, here are my fat rolls, here is my cellulite, and here is the irritating boil on my ass and my reoccurring chin hair.”
One is not allowed to wear Spanx, utilize Instagram filters or self-tanner in memoir. To be authentic, the author has to expose it all — the lovely, the ugly, the funny, and the humiliating. That transparency is what makes memoir relatable, powerful, memorable, and interesting. It is also what makes memoir a difficult genre to write.
In revealing one’s experiences – joys, accomplishments, trials, and traumas – the writer is exposed not only to strangers, but to loved ones and friends. It is one thing to stand in front of strangers – unapologetic in one’s nakedness. It is a whole other thing to say, “Hey, Dad! Hey, Mom! Check out this foot-long stretch mark. No, it’s cool. It’s out there. Anyone can just Google my name and see it. Aren’t you proud?”
This exposure to my loved ones sometimes renders me creatively impotent in the midst of writing a piece. It gives me fear-induced stomach cramps when submitting. It makes my voice shake when I’m reading in public. It makes my thumb freeze up over the “Share” button on Facebook when a piece I am proud of is accepted for publication — fearing not only criticism and judgement, but also praise and that confusing-without-the-benefit-of-tone-or-facial-expression response of “Wow!”
However, it is not just my exposure that I need to be concerned with. As a memoirist, I have a moral responsibility to the other people I write about. I can justify showing the world my naked ass without the benefit of Spanx, but I cannot justify lifting my aunt’s skirt over her head, regardless of how important her exposure is to telling my own story authentically.
My life (and as a result, my memoir) revolves around my desperate lifelong search for love as a sort of adhesive to fill in and hold together parts of myself that were long ago shattered, broken, or left incomplete. That love has taken on many forms over the years — puppy love, obsession and control, unrequited love, abuse, lost love, and motherly love — but the love I always found most easy to access was baited with sex. The psychological, biological, and even astrological reasons for this are some of the subjects I explore in my writing. To write memoir well (to counter that impression of navel-gazing confession by expertly swinging between various theories and confession, so as not to bore the reader), one must ground one’s personal experience with something more solid and research-based.
Unfortunately, this psychologically driven exploration of my life and behaviors leads to the inevitable exposure of others. My father, my step-father, my mother, my friends, my children, my grandfather, my grandmother, my siblings, and my lovers are all placed under a flaw-revealing blacklight. I may be holding that blacklight over my own head (giving myself the most exposure), but they are revealed in the ambient light. They are also reduced to their relationship to me. Their memories and experiences are not fully explored and explained. They are incomplete.
This moral responsibility I feel for my characters can be debilitating. I am not afraid to expose my rapists, my abusers, my bullies. As Anne Lamott so wisely stated in her book Bird by Bird, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” But it is a different matter to expose the sins of my family, their dark secrets, and the roles they may or may not have played in my psychological deformities.
Teachers of memoir writing offer some common techniques to counter this particular struggle. One is to change the names of the characters, and the other is to create a composite character (a character made up of traits from multiple people). These techniques are useful when one is writing about one’s high school bully, best friend, or even a lover (sometimes), but one cannot often disguise one’s parents, family members, or children this way. They will recognize their own cellulite or odd moles, regardless of the fake mustache applied to the lip of their character.
I have been sitting on a piece of memoir about my promiscuous youth for almost five years. It is, in my humble and usually self-deprecating opinion, the best thing I’ve ever written. I am proud of it. However, at the heart of this story lies a family secret — a secret that is not mine to share, despite how it affects me, my life, and my relationships. I have changed the names of the characters. I have chopped and edited important scenes. I have attempted to convince myself to submit it as fiction, but I can’t.
One might wonder why I bother to write memoir at all. The struggles seem to outweigh the benefits. Why do I put myself or those I love through all of this? Why not just write my story and submit it as fiction? I guess the simple answer is because I truly believe in the power of memoir — specifically, its ability to give others the courage to speak the unspeakable and to allow them to be vulnerable in the face of my vulnerability. Memoir validates my memories and experiences while also validating the memories and experiences of others. All of the anxiety I experience while writing, submitting, reading, and publishing my memoir is temporarily relieved when I receive confirmation of this validation from someone who has read and strongly related to my work. There is an instant intimacy created through our related experiences. And is it not intimacy that I ultimately crave?
My first public reading of memoir was in a packed coffee shop filled with my graduate school professors, my fellow students, a few of my friends, and my oldest son. My voice shook through the entire first page; I couldn’t look up from the overly-familiar-from-revision words on the page. The audience laughed, gasped, and “awwww-ed” in all of the right places. And despite my certainty that I would have a heart attack in the middle of this written reenactment of my rape and suicide attempt, I didn’t. After stepping down from the stage to the supportive applause of the familiar crowd, a handsome middle-aged woman in a broom skirt and an oversized knit sweater approached me. She had tears in her kind eyes. “You are incredibly brave,” she said as she embraced me in a surprisingly strong, sandalwood-scented hug. “I experienced something very similar in my teens and I found your story inspiring. Thank you for sharing it with me.” She said all of this as if we were the only two people in the room, and for a moment, it felt like we were.
I have had other moments like this after I have publically read or posted my work. Some express their shared experiences to me in a private message on Facebook, some approach me personally (shy and refreshingly sincere), some confess to me in drunken interactions at the bar. But regardless of how they do it, I feel a powerful sense of validation from this solidarity and shared vulnerability. They see me and I see them, fully and completely — my flawed fellow humans, naked and unapologetic.